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Le pouvoir se mange entier

My computer’s being extremely finicky today, so I hope that this post goes through, but if it does not, I can assure you that it was epic.

I mentioned the other day that I finished two books. I reviewed one, so now here’s a review of the other. It’s slightly older (1990), but still a good read: Johannes Fabian’s Power and Performance: Ethnographic Explorations through Proverbial Wisdom and Theater in Shaba, Zaire.

Flag of Zaire

lubumbashi-drc-map-final1

The cover of the book is actually quite boring, so instead, I put these flags and this map of the country, where someone conveniently circled Lubumbashi in red. Thanks, Internet!

Flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.svg

Flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While doing research for my master’s thesis, I came across a book that cited something that I liked that came from this book, and the title itself hooked me in. Ethnography, performance, power structure – what’s not to like?

To briefly summarize, Fabian went to Elisabethville, Shaba, Zaire (now Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1986 to do some delicious fieldwork with locals, creating a performance piece that ended up involving an entire town and even some higher-ups. It is pretty evenly split between theory and practical information; the first part details the events leading up to and surrounding the rehearsals and performances, and the nuances and situations that came up, and the second part is more or less a rudimentary script of the piece. Fabian writes the Swahili versions of the scene first, following it up with one or more English translations. I didn’t even bother reading the Swahili or the notes on the Swahili parts and just flipped to the English. Part of me is thankful that I got several respites, but a part of me might have put the Swahili script together, and the English script after, or vice versa, as new characters kept getting introduced, and by the time I picked the book back up again after a break from reading and wading through the footnotes, I had to go back and refresh myself on what was going on.

The play is actually not the focus of the work; it’s the theory that provides the most insightful information. In a rather unusual move, Fabian starts out with a criticism of himself and of “the field,” writing that “[a]lthough we do our field research on the premise of coevalness, of sharing time with our interlocutors on equal terms, we then go on to produce an allochronic discourse based on temporal distacing; we construct an Other whom we relegate to times other than our own” (4-5). I couldn’t have said it better myself; what Fabian is telling us here is that we put too much emphasis on comparison and judgment in ethnographic fieldwork that it can blur what’s going on in front of our faces.

Interesting thought.

Fabian also dips into the history of theatre in Lubumbashi, back when it was called Elisabethville in the mid-20th century. He talks about Bwana Cheko, giving a very detailed description of their performance practices and dramaturgy on pages 72-73. One of the main focuses of his discourse, though is a phrase he keeps returning to: le pouvoir se mange entier, which is a French phrase meaning “power is eaten whole.” Interestingly, this proverb is well-known in Shaba, where is has different associations with different stories in varying languages. As Zaire/DRC used to be Belgian Congo, it’s not surprising that a French phrase would be in the national consciousness, but to have it appear among a multilingual discourse and have it mean different things in each is something unique indeed. On page 73, however, Fabian points it out on a conducteur (mission statement) from Bwana Cheko that reads “MORAL: LE POUVOIR SE MANGE ENTIER, i.e., the chief is there for everyone and cannot take sides, he must serve his people as an equal but with authority” (73). This gives a new meaning to power, as does the play text that succeeds it, about a chief who exercises power, but in a different way than one would normally expect.

I could go on and on about the concepts and context, but it’s an incredibly dense text and I think either by this point you’ve clicked away or your eyes are closing, so I’ll wrap up with a takeaway thought from the author’s section entitled “Reflections and Afterthoughts”

Inasmuch as proverbs and plays are statements (which perhaps should be questioned), they need authors and audiences, positions to be made from and situations to be addressed to. As performances they need occasions and “repetitions.” As artistic creations they require material – shared experiences, habits, images – from which they can be construed and canons according to which they may be judged and appreciated. Propositional content, event, and rhetorical form are inextricably related; temporarily to focus on one of them does not constitute it as a distinct object of investigation. Literary deconstructivism may be an approach congenial to this view but does not have to be applied as doctrine. In my view, moving in several directions at once is the only realistic way to deal with the complex context from which le pouvoir se mange entier emerged (even though to invoke realism is certain to rub deconstructivists the wrong way) (Fabian 263).

Basically, parts of this text really got my rocks off, theory-wise. I can see myself reading more Fabian in the future and maybe even citing his work should I end up doing fieldwork in Africa – probably highly unlikely, but you never know.

On a different subject, thanks for another six-continent day, and oddly enough, Europe was the last continent to show up on my blog. So, hello to those from North America (Canada, USA, and Antigua & Barbuda), South America (Colombia and Chile), Europe (Ireland, Ukraine and Sweden), Africa (Ethiopia [welcome!] and South Africa), Asia (India, Pakistan, Philippines, Taiwan and Japan) and Oceania (Australia).


Works Cited

Fabian, Johannes. Power and Performance: Ethnographic Explorations through Proverbial Wisdom and Theater in Shaba, Zaire. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin P, 1990.

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Masterpiece YouTube: “Im Telech,” The Idan Raichel Project

That’s So Jacob Presents: Masterpiece YouTube

Episode 4: “Im Telech,” The Idan Raichel Project, 2002.

This video and song have been around for a long time, but it was one of the first music videos I remember watching and having appreciation for. Not only is the song awesome, but the story of the video works as well.  The Idan Raichel Project is a magical supergroup of Israeli-Ethiopian cultural fusion music that makes use of instruments both traditional and non-traditional, and the results range from sweet and gentle to stark and haunting. In 2006, I got to see them perform live at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC, which was kind of cool. I went with my entire Hebrew class, including the professor, so it was a little awkward, but I enjoyed it and I rarely enjoy concerts of this nature. This group just stands out – regardless of the fact that they’re Israeli (which is awesome), they know how to perform and do it well.

We open on a cave painting of a line of people, with one person clearly missing. A woman who is next to that empty space goes searching for a person to fill it. She crosses through wide mesas, herds of cattle, and open desert, constantly searching. Upon encountering some musicians (also cave paintings), she remembers a man, and keeps walking. The sun is beating down on her, and as the shadowy eagles close in above her, the screen fades to black. She appears to us as if falling down a hole, then on her feet battling a stiff wind against some fluttering leaves, Just when she kneels down out of pain, suffering, and disappointment, the man she’s been imagining materializes before her to lift her up. They embrace, and their bodies become one single white butterfly, flying off into the blackness. The scene then goes back to the original cave painting tableau, where the woman is without him. A single tear floats down her face, remembering the happy time she once had, before zooming out to show us the full painting, with the human chain still broken.

This video contains many messages, and I don’t know if the ending is supposed to be sad, because she is still alone, or happy, because she at least had one moment, one opportunity of love, a memory that she can carry with her forever. It’s drawn compellingly and simply, and shows a journey that is both wonderful and heartbreaking. To me, it means that if you love someone, you shouldn’t let them go, and that there is someone out there for everyone. I can’t tell if she has a smile or a frown in the last frame, but in the end, her hand is empty, forever waiting for him to come and fill that gap.

This episode of Masterpiece YouTube has been brought to you by loneliness, procrastination, and dirty gym clothes.